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07/20/2016

Plagiarism: It is a Big Deal

by Nanette Elster, JD, MPH

Election season is in full swing, with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week. In an effort to get things off on a bright note, Melania Trump gave a speech on the first day of the GOP convention praising her husband. Citizens want a sense of who Donald Trump is as a father, husband, and citizen, not a sense of someone else. Unfortunately, that was what viewers were treated to when Mrs. Trump, though poised and sincere, delivered a speech that not only echoed the sentiments of Michelle Obama talking about her husband, but actually used First Lady Obama’s words, verbatim. In academia, we have a word for that . . . it is called plagiarism. According to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, “it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

The Trump campaign, however, initially resisted criticism that Melania and/or her speech writer(s) lifted the words of another author without proper attribution. According to Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, accusations that Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama are not accurate and she just used “common words” to talk about issues that are important to her like “family values.” His response reflects a growing popular sentiment that plagiarism is somehow not a big deal. Plagiarism is a big deal! Apparently the Trump campaign does not see just how insidious plagiarism is not only to the credibility and integrity of the writer but to the original author. In addition, plagiarism is an affront to the audience. Plagiarism is about disrespect. If something is worthy enough of being repeated, than proper attribution is absolutely imperative.

I teach a writing course to students pursuing a graduate degree in bioethics. We begin each semester with a week-long module on academic integrity. The bulk of the week’s discussion is devoted to the topic of plagiarism. Understanding the importance of citing sources and giving credit where credit is due, makes any writer a better writer. We all have heard the adage, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (attributed to 17th Century British Writer, Charles Caleb Colton), but if that is truly the case, we should give credit where credit is due. Today, Trump campaign employee Meredith McIver apologized for taking down some passages of Michelle Obama’s (whom Melania admires) without checking the First Lady’s speeches. While I stress that avoiding plagiarism is necessary for a scholar in bioethics, it should be a necessity for any writer or speaker who wishes to be taken seriously.

If Melania Trump would not want to cite directly to Michelle Obama at a Republican National Convention, couldn’t she or her speech writer have taken those sentiments and phrased them differently? Without a doubt certain words and phrases have become so common place that they are integrated into our vernacular, but in the interest of fairness why not take a few minutes and make sure that the thoughts you are expressing are original. Today, many tools exist for checking the originality of one’s work. Sources such as Turnitin or iThenticate are just two such tools that are easy to use and can point out when language may be identical to another source. No more excuses exist for sloppy scholarship! If we expect that students should not be sloppy scholars, shouldn’t we expect the same from those seeking roles in leadership? Although Melania Trump’s speechwriter claimed she did not intend to harm, the onus is on her to ensure that the words she’s writing are hers, and if they aren’t, that they be properly attributed. Honesty, integrity, respect . . . these are common values and these are the values to which plagiarism can be so damaging.

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